Phillips: Austin City Council can return piece of history to community


When I first wrote about the former Montopolis Negro School a year ago, it faced almost certain demolition and redevelopment to make way for new housing units, offices and shops – despite its obvious historic value.

Consider that the school is one of the last of 42 institutions that educated African-American children from 1935 to 1962, when Austin’s school system relegated black children to separate, unequal schools.

CITY HALL: Austin council to consider buying, preserving Montopolis Negro School.

Supporters of the Negro school faced forceful roadblocks as they tried to rescue it from the bulldozer: The city denied the school historic landmark status that would have permanently protected it — and Austin Stowell, local developer and owner of the school and its 1.8-acre site at 500 Montopolis Drive, obtained a demolition permit, leaving its fate uncertain.

Another disappointment came with city staff-recommended zoning changes allowing Stowell, who said he would preserve the school, to go ahead with plans to redevelop the site as a mixed-use project.

That solution ignored that the site also was deemed historic by a local historian because African-Americans had used the grounds for Juneteenth celebrations and civic functions. And it still left the school’s fate in Stowell’s hands, meaning he could change his mind and raze the building.

By contrast, those fighting to save the Negro school, led by local historian Fred McGhee and activist Susana Almanza, were few in number and resources. But, like the biblical David, their slingshot proved powerful.

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They staged protests, pressured city and county officials, rallied neighborhood associations and launched a social media campaign to get to this point, where the Negro school’s journey might well have a storybook ending.

On Thursday, the Austin City Council will decide whether to try to buy the Montopolis Negro School, restoring it as a historic asset for the public that would serve as a tourist destination. Doing so would forever remove it from the threat of bulldozers and redevelopment.

Stowell has indicated a desire to work with the council toward a solution that likely would result in a sale of the property, though his preference has been to redevelop it.

“Since learning that the Montopolis School was historic, I’ve made extensive efforts to preserve the structure,” Stowell said in a statement last week.

“I merely asked that I receive appropriate zoning that would subsidize my preservation efforts, which amount to forgoing development on about one-third of the site and the financial burden of the structure’s restoration.”

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He added: “With the proposed council resolution, we are now faced with a situation in which taxpayers are being called upon to allocate funds to preserve the entire site. Should that effort be the will of the people and the City Council, we look forward to working through the process to see if we can come to an amicable resolution for all parties.”

I hope so. And I hope a majority of the council approves purchasing the property. The saga of the Negro school tells of a historic wrong: the dispossession of property by the city, county and school district that once belonged to the African-American community and rightly should be returned to the public as a historic asset.

The school’s roots date back to 1891, according to accounts from the Travis County Historical Commission, when it was established in a shotgun shack on Bastrop Highway, one mile south of the river in the then-Colorado School District. That building was used until 1935, when it was destroyed by a storm. After the county failed to rebuild the school, it changed hands several times, going from public ownership by the Austin school district and city to private hands.

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Aside from righting the historical ship, the city’s proposed purchase of the site illustrates the wisdom of the council’s decision to divert hotel occupancy tax (HOT) revenue to preservation efforts. Contrary to what Stowell indicated, money to purchase and restore the Negro school won’t come out of the pockets of Austin and Travis County taxpayers; it will come from tourists.

As its name implies, HOT revenue is generated by fees charged to visitors when they stay in hotels in the city. State law restricts what the HOT can be spent on, such as on convention centers and other purposes that benefit tourism. But a portion legally can be steered to historic preservation. The council did that earlier this month when it set aside $7.2 million annually for historic preservation with the goal of raising it to its maximum level – more than $11 million — in future years.

Kudos to Mayor Steve Adler, who is sponsoring Thursday’s proposal for the school, and Council Members Ora Houston, Kathie Tovo and Sabino “Pio” Renteria, all who helped clear government roadblocks.

But the true giant-slayers are McGhee, Almanza, Georgia Steen, a former student of the school, Dave Cortez and a dozen or so other committed people whose efforts spared the Negro school from the predatory redevelopment that is rapidly devouring East Austin properties associated with Latino and African-American cultures.

Let’s hope they reload that slingshot.

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